If you listen to the two coaches who are involved in today’s Middle Tennessee State vs. Butler men’s basketball game, this is a contest that could just as easily have been played a couple of weeks from now in Phoenix, as opposed to tonight in Milwaukee (7:10 p.m., TBS, WLYV 1450 AM).
“I told our staff and our team today,” veteran Blue Raider coach Kermit Davis said in a press conference Friday, “I think (Butler) is a Final Four team and a team that can definitely win a national championship.”
That remains to be seen, but Davis cited the fact that Butler swept No. 1-seed and defending national champion Villanova this season as evidence.
In reference to Middle Tennessee State, third-year Bulldog coach Chris Holtmann felt just as strongly about Davis’ team, and if you look at the Blue Raiders’ resume, it isn’t just respectful hyperbole on the part of Holtmann.
“There’s no question this is a Final Four caliber team we’re playing,” Holtmann said in his press conference at the BMO Harris Bradley Center Friday. “They are as good as any team we’ve played in the second round in my tenure.”
For starters, the Blue Raiders have won a ton of games (31-4), and they have done so against quality competition. They have beaten a 23-win Belmont squad on the road (by 13), smoked NCAA Tournament qualifier Vanderbilt (by 23), and pounded Southeastern Conference opponent Mississippi on the road (by 15).
Even in defeat, Middle Tennessee State is impressive. The Blue Raiders traveled to VCU and only lost 80-77.
“Most people are picking Middle Tennessee to win this game,” Holtmann said. “It says something when they’ve won 31 games. They’re terrific.”
The Blue Raiders are actually four-point underdogs to the Bulldogs, but they did win their three Conference USA Tournament games by nearly 18 points per game and have won 11 straight games, a stretch that has now reached six weeks.
Much of the core group of Blue Raider players were participants in their beatdown of Michigan State (90-81) to open the tournament a year ago. But since then, Middle Tennessee State has also added fifth-year senior transfer JaCorey Williams (6-foot-8, 220 pounds), who leads his team in scoring (17 points per game) and rebounding (seven boards each night).
“He’s a load,” Holtmann said of Williams. “There is a reason he has posted the numbers that he has posted this year. He and (teammate Reggie Upshaw) are just tremendous talents.”
Despite all of its success this year, Middle Tennessee State was only awarded a 12-seed, which left both coaches baffled a bit.
“It kind of alarmed us,” Davis said. “We were ranked in the coaches’ poll 25th. Our RPI is like 35th and everybody says you need to play a good non-conference schedule, our strength of schedule was 18th and we won 30 games.”
Davis said he sees similarities between the two programs and that is something that he takes pride in. Both Butler and Middle Tennessee were in a select group of seven programs a year ago that won NCAA Tournament games and graduated all of its seniors. He added that he is trying to model his program, just as Butler evolved over the past 10 to 15 years, into a national power.
“I’ve really had such great respect for Butler from afar because they do it at our level in such a way with integrity, with athletes and academics,” Davis said. “To be on the same footing as those guys and just what they’ve done with sustainability is something that we’re sure striving for.”
The Blue Raiders have won at least 24 games in five of the past six seasons and have averaged over 25 wins annually in that stretch.
“We do feel that we can play with anybody in college basketball,” Davis said. “That’s not being arrogant.”
No, based on what Middle Tennessee State has done under Davis, that is being honest.